Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government

PETITIONER: Alaska
RESPONDENT: Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government
LOCATION: Sacramento County Police Department

DOCKET NO.: 96-1577
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 522 US 520 (1998)
ARGUED: Dec 10, 1997
DECIDED: Feb 25, 1998

ADVOCATES:
John G. Roberts, Jr. - for Petitioner
Heather R. Kendall - Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

In 1971, Congress enacted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which completely extinguished all aboriginal claims to Alaska land. ANCSA revoked the Neets'aii Gwich'in Indians' reservation surrounding the Village of Venetie. Subsequently, two Native corporations established for the Neets'aii Gwich'in elected to use an ANCSA provision allowing them to take title to former reservation lands in return for forgoing the statute's monetary payments and transfers of nonreservation land. The title to the reservation was ultimately transferred to the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government (Tribe). In 1986, Alaska entered into a joint venture with a private contractor to construct a public school in Venetie. Afterwards, the Tribe notified the contractor that it owed the Tribe approximately $161,000 in taxes for conducting business activities on its land. The Federal District Court held that, because the Tribe's ANCSA lands were not "Indian country," the Tribe lacked the power to impose a tax upon nonmembers. The Court of Appeals reversed.

Question

Is the land owned by the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government "Indian country" pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act?

Media for Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 10, 1997 in Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 96-1577, Alaska v. The Native Village of, is it Venetie?

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Venetie, Venetie.

William H. Rehnquist:

Venetie.

How do they get that out of V-e-n-e-t-i-e?

May I ask counsel for respondent, is the correct pronunciation of the Native Village of Venetie?

Heather R. Kendall:

Venetie.

William H. Rehnquist:

Venetie.

Thank you.

Mr. Roberts.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

In 1971 Congress settled Native Alaskan land claims by passing the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

That act revoked all reservations in Alaska save one, and extinguished all claims based on aboriginal title.

In exchange, it conveyed to State-chartered corporations owned by individual Native shareholders 1 billion dollars and 44 million acres of land in fee simple, land which because a freely alienable asset of the corporations to do with as they see fit.

The Ninth Circuit nonetheless held that the settlement lands at issue in this case were Indian country, a jurisdictional concept epitomized by the reservation and characterized by land held in trust or otherwise controlled by the Federal Government.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Roberts, why do you suppose Congress didn't just mention somewhere in this settlement act section 1151's dependent Indian community notion?

I mean, it would have been so easy--

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Well, it's often the case that--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

--to include a little phrase there somewhere about that.

Why do you think that didn't happen?

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

--I think because Congress in 1971 had no reason to suppose that there was any such Indian country in Alaska.

That had been the nearly uniform decision of Alaskan courts that had looked at the question, and at the time, yes, there were a handful of reservations that were--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

There were some reservations.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

--There were reservations, and they were revoked, so to the extent there was Indian country that they would be aware of, they took action very expressly to extinguish it.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

But most of the land that was conveyed was not Indian country under the then-prevailing jurisprudence.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

That's correct and, in fact, it was not Indian country under the accepted concept as it had developed in the lower 48.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

I have some... I have another just kind of basic question here that you can help me with.

What is sought here by the Venetie Village is the ability to levy a certain kind of tax, in this instance on construction of a school building.

Now, can the village be incorporated, if you will, as a municipality under Alaska law so that the village would have all the powers of any incorporated municipality in Alaska?

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Yes, and in fact many--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Has it done so, to your knowledge?